What Thriller Novelist Phillip Margolin Had to Say

In my quest to hear how experienced novelists do it, I arrived along with many fans to listen to Phillip Margolin talk about his latest novel, Executive Privilege. I was curious about him because way-back-when I worked for the publishing company that first landed him on the bestseller lists. I remember the buzz that went around the editorial offices about Gone, But Not Forgotten. He was the “it” author that season.

Highlights from his talk:

1. Advice to writers: Don’t rush the writing on your good story idea lest you peter out prematurely, get dejected, and subsequently set aside what is actually a solid premise. He sometimes develops his plots over years. For example, the premise for Executive Privilege came to him in the early 1990s. (The premise: Can a U.S. president be a serial killer? Hmm…I had a few thoughts on this!)

2. Initial novel ideas: His often revolve around a moral dilemma. For example, Margolin was formerly a criminal defense attorney, and one day he got to thinking about whether there existed a criminal so morally repugnant that he would refuse to defend him, only to have to anyhow. This is Gone, But Not Forgotten.

3. From idea to initial plot ideas: Sometimes, on the other hand, his initial ideas aren’t so deep. His example centered around the image that came into his head upon watching a couple making out on a beach (on t.v.). He imagined a guy in SCUBA gear pulling the woman beneath the waves to kill her. (Gotta love his macabre imagination.)

First, he asks himself the journalistic basics–who, what, where, when, why, how–until he arrives at an interesting scenario that lends itself to conflict. Who is the man? (Judge) Who is the woman? (His mistress) Where are they? (Island paradise) Why? (Privacy) As far as the underwater killer goes: Why would the murderer kill someone in such a convoluted manner anyhow? Then, what does the judge do about his politically disastrous situation? Does he become the main suspect? And so on.

4. Plotting: Margolin is an outliner. He spends months on them, and they can be up to 60 pages long. I asked him whether his stories ever drifted from his outlines. Yep, indeedy. Sometimes the changes come while he’s writing, sometimes as a result of the editorial process.

5. Relationship with publishing house: From what he said, it doesn’t sound like his publisher intrudes too much on his process. Yet, the sales force may suggest title changes. The Courtyard Athletic Club became Ties That Bind, for example.

Or, his editor may point out weaknesses in his manuscript (as all good editors should). He mentioned the case of Proof Positive, in which his original draft contained a point-of-view character in the first chapter that didn’t appear again (yikes!). He was flummoxed as to how to integrate this character into the rest of the novel until an assistant had a bright idea. He then spent eight hours a day for two weeks re-fashioning the novel.

6. Last but not least: My favorite quote of the evening, overheard before Margolin arrived: “I came because I heard rumors that he’s dating my ex-wife.” Now there’s a potential story!

Angst and Bad Writing Juju

Yet another angst-ridden, as-yet-unpublished novelist’s moment, a frustrated and self-doubting moment, an all-too-familiar and tiresome moment that previously led me to rant against succubus novels. Three posts ago, I mentioned my epiphany about the climax scene. I wrote that scene last week. Now, it feels anticlimactic.

I was so jazzed before I wrote the scene, so what happened? I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that the answer relates to suspense. I’ve been giving this concept a lot of thought. Here’s what occurs to me:

I might be torturing myself about what constitutes suspense that gets acquiring editors a-drooling. And this may be because I just finished reading the latest crime novel by a bestselling novelist, and this bestseller loves the surprise whodunit twist within a twist within a twist until the plot is wrung dry as dust.

As I’ve come to expect from certain writers, this novel’s culprits were indeed characters who appeared or were mentioned only in passing. They didn’t even merit “subplot character” status. I’ll admit that I was surprised by one of the villains, but that was because I’d forgotten this character existed. The twist felt like bad storytelling juju to me — ham-fisted and too manipulative — yet it got under my skin. This novelist sells; she must be doing something right, right?

(Sidenote: Seems to me I vowed (this post) to read only nonfiction until I completed the first draft. Alas, case in point for reinstating that vow right here, right now: I’m letting another novelist’s trickiness mess with my head. Susceptible, that’s me; hence, the vow.)

Questions to self: Can’t the culprit be a character that readers might actually suspect? Can’t the surprise and suspense stem from unanswered WHYs or HOWs? Can’t the cool thing be the way the disparate puzzle pieces fit together? Given interesting, well-rounded characters, can’t their personal-story resolutions count for as much with acquiring editors as whodunit resolutions?

I’m just asking, that’s all I’m saying, just asking.

P.S. Will get back to the cliffhanger from last Friday later this week — if I can remember where I was heading with that post!

What I Learned From a Bestselling Novelist

withsusanwiggs2.jpgLast weekend during my impromptu Puget Sound writers retreat (I wrote 32 pages!) I spoke to New York Times bestselling novelist Susan Wiggs at a book event. That I’d met her once before and that we have at least one mutual friend went a long way toward alleviating my tendency to clam up in the presence of novelists of stature. It also helped that she is down-to-earth and friendly.

Ms. Wiggs was a font of information about what life can be like in the publishing big leagues.

For example, did you know that…


portludlow3a.jpg1. …publishng contracts can include bonuses for landing on the NYT bestseller list? Or that it behooves us to negotiate favorable reversion rights so that we can regain ownership of our out-of-print novels? This is especially true should our books gain a fan-base. On the other hand, once we become bestsellers all our old publishers will rush to reprint those older novels anyhow — money in the bank for everyone involved.

2. …there is a smoke-and-mirrors aspect to the business that publishers readily exploit for the greater bottom-line? Here are a few examples: Designing the cover art with the novelist’s name bigger and bolder than the title to lend it that “bestseller” look even though the novelist hasn’t attained that status (yet). Or, negotiating favorable positioning inside one of the major chains (in custom risers in the front of the store; you’ve seen them) for an entire first print run — which in essence also gives the novel a “bestseller” appearance.

portludlow5a.jpg3. …many novelists at Ms. Wigg’s level incorporate themselves? Recently, a friend told me that National Book Award winner Denis Johnson recently inc’d himself. My impression is that becoming a limited liability this or that (jargon unknown to me) is pretty standard. And it makes sense, too, for tax and personal liability reasons.

4. …steadily increasing sales over many books is often preferable for a long-lived publishing career than the bidding-war-big-bucks first novel? Second-novel syndrome in which the second novel can’t hope to compare to the phenomonal first has sunk many a novelist.

5. …at the bestseller-dom level, the novelist and publisher may engage in a collaborative roundtable to generate story ideas? These brainstorming sessions include the marketing department, which may have veto power because there’s so much at stake. Call it a symbiotic relationsip: publisher committing to marketing and publicity bucks (which land novelists on the bestseller lists when all is said and done) and in return author commiting to one or two novels a year to keep the momentum going.

portludlowbaldeagle2.jpgNumber five fascinated me, especially when Ms. Wiggs mentioned that she still gets rejected (at the idea level not at the written-manuscript level).

Besides rejection, Ms. Wiggs still faces her writing group with potentially crappy drafts and expects the truth from them; still gets red-lined by her editors; still battles with story ideas that don’t necessarily pan out in the writing.

She’s still a novelist writing one sentence at a time like the rest of us. And, she works hard. She mentioned that she’d be reading page proofs (a tedious task) after dinner on Saturday night and before breakfast the next morning. I forgot to ask her whether she ever gets an entire weekend away from her characters…